It occurred to me last night, when I decided to “follow” the Chicago Manual of Style on my twitter account, that I though I often referred to this or that tip from a particular style manual, my readers might not be exactly clear on what a “style manual” is.
Don’t feel bad. I carried around The Elements of Style for at least a year before I actually figured out what I was supposed to use it for! (Or until an English professor finally suggested I check my style manual for the proper way to use a semi-colon.)
Despite the sort of fancy-sounding title (yes, that is ironic, given my last post and the admonishment by the style-guide writers, themselves, to “avoid fancy” wording), a style manual is a practical resource book for writers. Like many professions, writers (even really good ones) have to look up grammatical rules occasionally to ensure (not “assure”–again, see last week’s post) that they are using an em-dash, or ampersand (“&”) correctly. It’s a reference book, and a writer should use it just like an engineer uses a conversion chart, or a scientist consults a table of elements.
Any recent or current college students probably had to purchase a style book or writer’s reference book for a college English class. My freshman were required to buy the Little, Brown Company handbook, and I regularly assigned short readings from it. It should be noted, however, that reading a style book is generally extremely boring, and though I have read almost every page of the Chicago Manual of Style, I would not recommend it. Like multiplication tables, it’s monotonous. Unlike the same, it’s very hard to memorize.
A style manual ought to be used to back up your own knowledge of the English language. You speak it, read it, write it everyday, and for the most part, your instincts for what sounds right are correct. But, as in the case of usage errors, subtle changes meaning from different punctuation usages, or just plain ol’ bad habits, a style guide can help you get it right.
Here’s a short list of reasons why you might crack open a style guide:
- Punctuation: rules, common usage, and ways to adjust punctuation to change meaning, every possible way to use a semi-colon, when to use a comma or a dash or parentheses.
- Vocabulary: misused words, helpful words, commonly confused words, etc.
- Standardization (rules of grammar/punctuation that you don’t use every day): how to write dates, addresses, the names of companies, or all the stuff you may not write on a daily basis but which you want to get right so you don’t look foolish when you do have to use it.
- Citation: If you are in the academic world, or simply want to publish something, style guides usually include details on how to cite articles, books, etc in your writing and prepare a bibliography. Unless you are student, it’s not likely that you will use this everyday, but for the same reason, it’s good to have because who can remember all that stuff!
- Parts of speech: verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. and how/when to use them. Or even just to remind you which is which. 🙂
- Tips for smooth writing: the best part about a good style guide is that it often includes explanations of why certain sentence or grammatical constructions make sense while others don’t. It helps you avoid common mistakes.
There are many different kinds out there, but I have made a list of some of the ones I have used (and find helpful) please see the “Good Reads for Good Writes” page. I think every writer should have at least one that they trust and use frequently.
Like any reference book, it helps to know a little bit about your subject to be able to use it effectively. My husband’s mechanical manual will not help me because wouldn’t know where to look, or what heading to look under. Depending on your knowledge of grammatical terminology (pop quiz: what is a compound sentence?) a book like Chicago might not be the best choice, as it is for professional writers. A book geared toward college students, or writers-at-large might be better because it will explain grammatical concepts in easy-to-follow langauge. In my experience, I juggle a few. Sometimes explanations of grammar comprised of a lot of other grammatical terms does NOT help me come to better understanding of when, exactly, to use an en-dash. A book that relies on examples that I might actually use is better suited for that. I know Grammar Girl’s pair of books are fairly accessible, though I don’t own them myself. (Yet.) They are aimed at a wider audience. I can appreciate that.
Regardless of what you write, though, style books are a great way to revamp your writing. Crack one open to a random page and refresh your memory on fresh ways to write things. I find a style manual is a great tool for breaking out of writing-ruts (or loosening your “writer’s cramp,” as the case may be. Hinthint. Winkwink.) I also find that a style book can remind me that I know more than I thought I did, that my instincts were correct. That is always a good feeling.